Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Heading home tomorrow, last chance for some real adventures

Most of my compatriots have opted to undergo the rabies vaccination that is suggested by our health organization. I’ve chosen not to, mostly because the vaccine almost killed one of our dogs once and also because I think it’s a waste of time and money. As a preventative, you get three shots; if an animal draws blood, you get five. And the rush to the hospital to get them only has to happen within seven days. I decided sometime back that Hepatitis, Japanese Encephalitis and Typhus vaccinations were plenty. This means though that you have to be on your guard around dogs and that in turn often means we make a lot of jokes about being attacked, an attack that would take the form of having your ankle bitten by the standard Chinese dog that’s 6 inches high at the withers.

Last Sunday I had that run-in with the rat dog in the park. Not much of a run-in and not much of a dog. But for a moment when he pulled himself up to his full size I was slightly concerned. I got over it. This morning when I boarded the elevator, there was a loose Pomeranian running around and around between the other rider’s legs, clearly excited about his impending walk around the block. No leash, when I say loose I mean loose. This situation deserved my undivided attention.

I boarded and took a place in the corner at the front. The dog came over and stood under me, looking up with a grin which suggested, “This person is the wrong color and the wrong height and doesn’t smell right either.” I smiled and he went off, staying at the back for about 10 seconds before returning and staring at me some more, this time with more of a dog smile on his face now as if to say, “Well, you don’t look or smell right, but you’re smiling so you must be okay.” I’m sure if he’d had a tail he would have wagged it. We stopped at a couple of floors on the way down and darned if the little orange fellow knew enough not to get off. His master said something to him and the dog looked up at him and back at the door, waiting for it to open. When we got to the first, the master gently kicked him out the door into the lobby and he went tearing out the door to see what was going on out in the real world. From then on I was nothing more than a mere afterthought in his little doggie brain.

Some days you just wonder if it’s ever going to let up. No day here is like a day at home, days at home are rarely punctuated by weirdness. But a day here without something strange happening is simply not conceivable. To me anyway. It makes me wonder how the Chinese live their lives because if I had to put up with the things they must have to put up with, I think I’d lose my mind.

I got in the car this morning and there was a plastic grocery bag with a fast food container in it and I knew right away that there was a story about to happen. Mr. Jiang told me that he had brought me lunch, leftovers from a party he had last night with his friend. I can only imagine what he has to say about me, it’s either “he’s very smart” or “you have to hear the latest on this guy.” He told me that he and his friend had a great time drinking some beers and eating some dinner and that he brought this for me to try out. Well, I’m flying tomorrow and so I was immediately on the defensive but I thanked him profusely and accepted his kind gift. We spent the drive to work making plans for me to visit the bank this afternoon where I hoped to accomplish two things. First, I wanted to request a replacement debit card for the one I’d received back in September. There was a bit of a problem with that batch, the magnetic strip and the labeling were peeling off all the cards in the batch that was handed out that week. I know this because one of my staff received his card on the same day as I did and he’d ended up replacing his in January. I just put a bit of scotch tape on mine, figuring it would get me through until I had a chance to get a new one. Nothing here is as easy as it could be; in this case a new card takes 7 business days and requires a return trip to the bank. It would be unthinkable that you might be able to get one faster than that. Second, I wanted to pay my corporate credit card bill before I left the country for a month. I showed a business card from the bank to Mr. Jiang and asked him if he had an idea where it was, he didn’t which didn’t surprise me, but I did and he told me he’d call to find out later. We made a plan for him to pick me up at 2 PM.

When I arrived at my desk, I decided that I would check out the lunch. The inside of the bag was smelling kind of fishy and when I opened up the container, it became apparent why – inside was a whole crab and an abalone. Kind of room temperature. I was very flattered but decided to offer this up to the common fund.

The better part of the morning was spent trying to see if I could link my debit card to my corporate credit card via China Merchant Bank’s online system. They have a really nice, all-English web page with happy, smiling people wearing telephone headsets beckoning you to ring them up. They have a nice list of log-in opportunities on the right hand side and I chose “Login to General Edition.” The fun stopped right there, along with the English. Behind the Potemkin village of happy, bilingual operators, everything was written in Chinese. I asked my colleague to come over and help me with the translation and we made some progress, actually getting a look at the balance of my savings account which amazingly had grown by 3.20 RMB in the last 9 months. The miracle of compound interest, 50 cent is 50 more cents in my pocket any day of the week. Imagine if I had had more than $200 in there!

Things began to unravel when we tried to link my corporate card to my debit card. In the infinite wisdom of our corporation, we are asked to apply for and use a Chinese credit card for all the business travel we do while we are on assignment here. It’s a nice idea, but I can imagine the howls of laughter from the desk jockeys at the Chandler Marriott when I try to use it there. Anyway, last January I did the application with the help of a department secretary and unlike most of my co-workers who had done the same, I actually received mine. I didn’t have any intention of actually using it, but I figured it would be worthwhile because very often, Chinese businesses don’t take the standard issue American Express card that normal employees have.

One of the cool things about our travel expense system is that if you use the corporate card, all the charges are automatically linked to your expense report. Often no receipts are necessary, all you do is apply the charges and the company pays the bill. It’s very clean and simple and so when I received my last vaccinations I used my AMEX card to pay for them. Well, surprise, the process only works when you’re living in the US. Over here, no such luck so I had to pay the bill when it came to my house and then wait for the reimbursement to come to my Chinese bank account, in RMB, of course. Never mind that it took me two expense reports before I realized that the base currency was Yuan and not US Dollars. When I checked out of the Inn Fine the other day, I used the Chinese card figuring I would be treated to the same behind the scenes process. Well, surprise again – there is no link between the corporate card and the expense reporting system. Paying the bill is up to you. And remember, we live in a country where it’s impossible to receive a bill in the mail, write a check and mail it in. One of my pals told me that he just takes his credit card to an ATM, tells it he wants to pay the balance and then shoves 20,000 Yuan into the machine, 100 at a time. But another co-worker told me he had managed to link his two accounts and in doing so, enabled direct bill pay. Of course some of this could be done on-line, but to do that you have to go to the bank and acquire a USB security thumb drive to plug into your computer every time you want to do a transfer. Yes, well, I thought I’d go for the former.

Mr. Jiang promptly picked me up at 2 and asked for the business card. He called the bank to get directions and had a long conversation with the person over there, in which I heard “Intel” and my name mentioned a bunch of times. As we pulled out of the lot I asked him if he knew where we were going and his answer was, “cha bu duo”, more or less.

Now I’ve been to the bank once and I’ve been by it a couple of times. I roughly know where it is, it fronts a district called “Green Town” which means nothing to the Chinese who have their own name for it. Never mind the giant sign that says it out front, no, the Chinese name is something phonetically like “guh leen shitian”, probably half Chinglish and half Chinese. As we drove through Kai Fa Qu, past the streets where I knew we were supposed to turn, I gathered that we were going to take the long way around, sort of drive past the bank some distance to the west while heading south, then loop back north on the east side along the beach. And that is exactly what we did; it couldn’t have been further if we tried, unless it involved taking a ferry to Korea and sailing back. But after a couple of pauses at intersections, we did find it, even managing to find the car entrance that was cleverly hidden between two bushes in the next door neighbor’s front yard.

I was looking for Mr. Yang and guessed immediately that he was the young man bounding across the lobby towards me. It is seemingly his job to sit there and wait for westerners to appear at the door, because he does have a modicum of English. When I spoke to him in Chinese, he responded with a very emphatic “Whoa”, obviously picked up in some movie featuring California surfer types. Just about everything I said about anything after that received the same response.
We solved the challenge of linking the cards quite quickly – Mr. Yang called up the credit card people and handed the phone to me. The young woman on the other end called me “Mr. Terry” and went through all my security questions, one by one in order to verify my identity. That done, she made the link and I was in business – my never to be used again credit card was now linked to my savings account.

The second challenge proved far more problematic. We filled out the “Lost/Replacement Card” request card and took it to a teller. Mr. Yang asked me if I wanted to “Frozen my money” and once I figured out what he was asking, I said “no”, I can’t because they are going to pay my credit card bill. This caused all sorts of confusion and consternation and the need for a second manager, behind the teller screen to get involved too. The situation eventually degraded to Mr. Yang and me staring at the back of the teller’s monitor while she and her manager stared at the front. I asked Mr. Yang what the problem was and he said the standard for the system is to “frozen the money.” I guess that’s to take care of the first part of the request, the “lost card” part but it’s not really necessary to deal with the “I just want one that isn’t peeling apart”, part. A couple of times I suggested that we just cancel this request and that I deal with it when I come back in a month. Mr. Yang nodded and agreed and went back to staring at the computer. The more Mr. Yang and the teller and the teller manager talked, the more I began to wonder if they even worked at the same bank. The teller’s manager went off and got on the phone for a long time while Mr. Yang and I discussed bicycles (my description of a custom bike received a huge “Whoa”) and horses (everyone is always amazed that we have four and are yet not tempted to eat them.) Suddenly, without warning, the teller asked me to enter my PIN and the problem was solved – my money was “not too frozen.” Mr. Yang gave me two pieces of paper; one which he said was very important and must not be lost. He folded it in large sections and jammed it in my passport cover. The second piece he informed me was, “Of no use to me whatsoever.” All the while this was going on; he was treating me to cups of hot water from the water cooler and asking me how I felt about their customer service. My response to the positive was met with great enthusiasm. He followed me out to the car and told me that he would keep an eye out to see if he would find me bicycling.

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